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Swan Song Review – IGN

Swan Song is exclusively available Dec. 17, 2021 on AppleTV+.

As long as we all are fated to die, storytelling about the intersectionality of technology and death is always going to be fertile ground to explore in TV and film. Swan Song is the latest, building a story around the logistics and emotions of a human agreeing to transfer their lifetime of memories into a scientifically created genetic clone. What sets this film apart are the ways in which writer/director Benjamin Cleary elegantly uses tech to underscore, but never overwhelm, the deeply emotional and relatable relationship stories at its heart.

Set in the unspecified near future in the Pacific Northwest, terminally ill Cameron Turner (Mahershala Ali) is an artist, husband, and father to a young son. He’s experiencing increasingly potent seizures that are going to kill him. Cameron is referred by his oncologist to Arra Labs, a biotech company in the early days of field testing their version of immortality. The company finds subjects willing to download their life into a genetically regenerated copy of themselves and give their blessing to let it seamlessly integrate back into their lives alongside their families, who have no idea. Morbid, for sure. But if you could protect your loved ones from the pain of having to “live” without you, emotionally and financially, wouldn’t it be worth it?

The Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy Movie of 2021

That’s the crux of the moral conundrum for Cameron, who wrestles with his death, along with his sense of self as he literally helps mold a clone to take his place. And with that comes the existential worry made real of exactly how replaceable we are. But wouldn’t those who truly love us know the difference? Cameron explores these “big questions” throughout his process of disconnecting. What’s most refreshing is that Cleary gently provides definitive answers about the nitty gritty regarding the tech stuff via Cameron’s getting to know Kate (Awkwafina), another terminal patient whose clone is already out in the world. As the original Kate inches closer to death at the Arra Labs bucolic and remote island, he observes the clone Kate existing without a blip, which means deeper ideas can be addressed.

The real art to this story is that it’s most interested in the intimate details of Cam’s life. In this profound space, Cam becomes a memory machine, going back to every consequential moment of his life which is shared with his clone. And through it, we get the messy realities of his specific experience. From his own suppressed issues of grief to the highs and lows of his marriage to Poppy (an excellent Naomie Harris), and the disappointments of what could have been, Cameron’s journey seems quiet, but played out on the deeply expressive face of Ali, it becomes something profound. It’s understood that Ali is a talent beyond most, but Cleary is a perfect collaborator because he puts into practice the environment the actor thrives in to do what he does so well. Cam is indisputably a dialogue-light role, but Ali makes both versions of the man incredibly known to us with every emotion he makes apparent in his expressive face. And he does it twice in essentially a dual role. What Ali puts forth in the last act of this film is heart-wrenching, and you likely won’t even see it coming because of how organic and natural to the moment he makes every scene.

The rest of the cast is sparse, but this is one of the best films to finally showcase the deeply emotional range of Harris. An actress who is often asked to play big, it’s wonderful to see her be so small here. She meets Ali beat for beat in their marriage dynamic, equaling his honesty and naturalistic approach to this couple who have lived through a lot together. Watching her character come through a dark journey informs so much about Cameron’s own, so they are a perfectly matched performance in terms of selling what Swan Song is all about. Kudos also to Glenn Close, who offers some sleight of hand vibes that help add a touch of appreciated ambiguity, and to Awkwafina, who makes an emotional impact in her limited time on screen.

The other quiet partners in the making of Cleary’s world are cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, production designer Annie Beauchamp, and art director Michael Diner and his team, who together craft one of the most elegant and non-intrusive tech futures I’ve seen in some time on screen. Takayanagi’s cool aesthetic matches the tone of the whole piece. And on the design side, everything from counters that charge your earbuds to the self-driving cars and the touch-screen computer functionality just integrates into life here, and that accomplishes the magic trick of propping up the concept that we are observing a world where assimilating a new human unobtrusively into the slipstream without any flash feels acceptable and holistic.

Swan Song keeps the staggering finality of death as its true north.

There are plenty of showier, more bells and whistle-y takes on this topic, but Swan Song keeps the staggering finality of death as its true north, and that’s what makes it stand out. Cleary’s ability to distill a life into memories of note strings together Ali’s performance in such a resounding way. We haven’t seen the whole of who Cameron is, but the moments we get to see count and give us a sense of so much that has been lived, and what hasn’t. It makes the stakes for Cameron’s decision in the end have the immediacy of a thriller without ever sacrificing the intimacy of the story Cleary wants to tell.

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